HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)

Portrait of an Unknown Lady

c. 1541
Vellum mounted on playing card, diameter 5,1 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

The first portrait miniatures were produced in France, their precursors being the small circular works commissioned by Francis I to celebrate the victory of Marignano in 1515. Jean Clouet was among the early practitioners of this format, which seems to have arrived in England by 1526 in the form of French royal portraits. Ten years elapsed before Holbein's contribution, but his work marks an immediate advance over the productions of earlier native practitioners like Lucas Horenbout. The small scale and different medium - vellum mounted on playing card (and termed `miniature' because of the lead, Latin minium, used in the paint) did nothing to hamper Holbein's sturdy realism.

The identity of the lady is uncertain - the Romantic view of the 1840s judged it to be a portrait of Henry VIII's tragic fifth wife, Catherine Howard, executed for alleged adultery, although no ascertainable portrait of her exists elsewhere. What is certain is that Holbein's powers of characterization lost nothing in the confined space. Features of his late style include the clarity and simplicity of the background, often eschewing even the standard biographical information so as to maintain as direct a perception of the sitter as possible.

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